The future scope of the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance activities could be decided this week as Congress works to reauthorize soon-to-expire anti-terrorism efforts while reforming a controversial data collection program.
At issue are activities of the secretive National Security Agency exposed by fugitive former contractor Edward Snowden that created a political firestorm at home and abroad, and were recently ruled illegal by a federal appeals court.
Last week, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. The USA Freedom Act now awaits action in the Senate, where the NSA program has powerful defenders.
“I think it is an important tool if we are going to have the maximum opportunity to defend our people here at home,” said Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on ABC’s “This Week” television program.
McConnell is one of several lawmakers arguing that heightened federal scrutiny of telephone communications might have prevented the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The NSA’s bulk data collection was launched in secret after 9-11, and goes too far, according to critics.
“If we accept that the government can collect all of our phone records, because it may – may – want to sift through them one day to look for some possible connections to terrorists, where is it going to end?” asked Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
Under the USA Freedom Act, telecommunications companies and not the government would store phone data.
McConnell says privacy concerns that prompted the bill are overblown and unwarranted, and that current law already safeguards Americans’ telephone activities.
“Nobody at NSA is routinely listening to your telephone conversations. In order to intercept any actual discussion on a telephone, they [the NSA] have to go to a court, get a court order,” said McConnell. “I do not want us to go ‘dark’ [blind to threats] in effect, and I am afraid the House-passed bill will basically be the end of the program.”
But whether the program has actually defeated any terrorist plots is a matter of contention, and will be the subject of intense Senate debate in the days to come. The issue divides both Democrats and Republicans, and has exposed a rift on where to strike a balance between national security and civil liberty.
“Terrorists are intent on destroying our very way of life, our nation’s foundation of freedom and justice for all,” said Republican Senator Steve Daines. “But as we strengthen our nation’s intelligence capabilities, we must with equal vigor and determination protect our constitution, our civil liberties, the very foundation of this country. If the forces of evil successfully propel our leaders in Washington to erode our core constitutional values, we will grant these terrorists a satisfying victory. We must never allow this.”
The Senate has only days to act. While the Patriot Act that covers bulk data collection expires June 1, the Senate will be in recess for the final week of this month. An ongoing legal challenge to the NSA program is on track to be decided by the Supreme Court, but would be rendered moot if Congress terminates the program on its own.